by Beth Ann Rosica
Who is really responsible for the lack of in-person learning from Pennsylvania’s schools?
That is the million-dollar question — one that’s largely unanswerable at this point due to a lot of finger pointing.
This week, Senators Carolyn Comitta (D – Chester) and John Kane (D – Chester/Delaware) sent letters supporting opening schools stating that there is nothing at the state level preventing schools from opening five full days.
Comitta stated, “Currently there is in fact no state or federal mandate preventing schools from opening. Also, please know that decisions as to how and when schools move to full or phased-in reopening are made by local school districts and their school boards.” Kane stated similarly, “Currently, whether or not schools can re-open for in-person learning is a decision entirely up to the school district, not to the legislature or any statewide administration.”
On November 19, 2020, Governor Wolf made this statement: “In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families.”
Then several days later the Pennsylvania Department of Education issued a notice to all school districts that they had to sign an attestation form affirming that they are 100 percent in compliance with the department’s guidance on COVID-19 or they were required to move to all remote learning. Every school board president was required to sign that attestation form.
The senators claim that there is nothing at the state level preventing schools from opening fully, but that does not appear to be the case.
Additionally, the Chester County Department of Health continues to promulgate more stringent guidance, including the requirement of six feet distancing in school when the state guidance suggests six feet when feasible. In a recent article, the West Chester Area School District superintendent cited guidance from the Chester County Health Department, which includes a social distancing guideline of six feet, for being able to teach only 50 percent of students at one time. However, the Chester County Department of Health claims that they have issued “guidance,” and no school board is required to follow it.
Meanwhile in neighboring Montgomery County, Souderton School District has been fully open for five days of in-person instruction for any family that wants that option. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia declared at the start of the school year that all Catholic schools would open for five full days, and they have remained opened with minimal short-term shut downs. Sadly, Philadelphia School District has not been open a single day for in-person instruction in almost a year.
In addition to the state Departments of Health and Education, the Chester County Department of Health, and the local School Boards, there is one other group that may be part of the equation: The Pennsylvania State Education Association.
Is the union preventing schools from fully re-opening? Over the summer, the PSEA President sent a letter to Governor Wolf asking him to address additional measures regarding schools. “It is also extremely important for Pennsylvania’s public schools to plan for the distinct possibility that further increases in COVID-19 cases will make it impossible to safely reopen Pennsylvania’s schools for in-person instruction.”
However, when I talk to many public school teachers who are union members, they share privately that they want students to return to school for five full days. Teaching in the hybrid model (half the students in person, the other half at home via technology) is to say the least, challenging. I personally believe that the majority of teachers at the West Chester Area School District have done an outstanding job in delivering instruction in a less than ideal environment. I do not think it is fair to the teachers to continue with the hybrid model. Ultimately, there is no right way to do the wrong thing, and the hybrid model is not the right thing.
As we approach the one-year mark of school closures, I think it is important to note that most parents who are advocating for a full return to in-person instruction are asking for that option, not a mandate. For those families who want to keep their children at home, they have that choice now and will continue to have that choice for at least the rest of the school year. I respect the right of every family to make the choice that is best for them, and I am simply asking for that same choice.
I am also advocating on behalf of our educationally disadvantaged students, including low-income and minority students, who may not be able to advocate for themselves.
Recent data shows that minority students are being disproportionately impacted by remote learning. While West Chester Area School District has taken measures to reach out to those students, they are still failing at a higher rate than white students.
Ultimately the toll of remote learning will be taken the hardest by those who can least afford it. In addition to the academic impacts, we are seeing increases in substance abuse, teen suicide, child abuse, and domestic violence. Our community is in the midst of a public health crisis that is not a result of the virus, but rather the unintended consequences of poor policy and decision making.
The issue of fully reopening schools has become as political as the last presidential election. Education should not be political. I implore all parties and agencies to work together to bring our children back to school full-time.
The data is clear that transmission is not occurring at school, therefore, we can bring our children back full time and still keep our teachers and staff safe. We all want what is best for our community, and opening schools is what is best for our community. Let’s stop the finger pointing and do the right thing for our children and our teachers.
Beth Ann Rosica, Ph.D., is a parent in the West Chester Area School District and an advocate for educationally disadvantaged students across the country has a private consulting business in the Education and Human Services field. (barosica @ hotmail.com)